Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Adventures of Superhero Girl


Faith Erin Hicks has been knocking the ball out of the graphic novel park for a while now. I very much enjoyed her books Friends with Boys and Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong. She is a graphic novelist, webcomics creator, and animator whose growing list of impressive works also includes The War at Ellsmere and Brain Camp. Today I am looking at a compilation of her webcomic, The Adventures of Superhero Girl.

This series began as a strip in Halifax's free weekly newspaper, The Coast, and was also published online. It follows the exploits of a superheroine who is trying to make it in the big city. She has a roommate, short job prospects, and a good, occasionally strained relationship with her mom and golden child older brother.
She does her requisite superheroic duties, which include fighting aliens and ninjas, and of course she also rescues cats from trees.
Aside from creating art packed with personality and verve, Hicks does an excellent job playing with superhero conventions and mixing them with more mundane matters. I think she is awesome at delivering laughs as well as evocative scenes and characters.
The most obvious shift in the compilation from the webcomic is the introduction of color by Cris Peter. He is well versed in coloring comics for all manners of companies, and I enjoy how he makes these strips look slightly pixelated, like print comics did before the 1990s.
I like these comics in either black and white or color, but I thought I'd include an original just for contrast.

The reviews I have read about this book have been overwhelmingly positive. Hillary Brown compared it to Friends with Boys, offering that "this collection is less polished in many ways, but also more charming, especially with Cris Peter’s smart coloring and halftone-dot backgrounds." Laura Sneddon made an impressive list of this book's positive features: "brilliant and funny comic with great characters; starring a woman superhero (whoot!); ninjas!; accessible without any prior comics knowledge; equally enjoyable with said knowledge; kitties!; lovely physical book with extra features and great colouring; suitable for all ages!" Joe Grunenwald summed up, "Your bookshelf will definitely a brighter place for having Superhero Girl on it."

This collection was published by Dark Horse, and they provide a preview here. The online version of the comic can be found here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Revival, Volume One: You're Among Friends


This book collects the first five issues of the hit comic book series. Its premise is a familiar one: the dead have come back to life. But this book is not so much a zombie story as it is a detective yarn. The plot and characters are a fresh take on noir stories, with elements of family relationships, media sensationalism, suspense, religious fanaticism, utter confusion, and horror all set in a sleepy, rural Wisconsin town. The main narrative follows police officer Dana Cypress as she tries to get to the bottom of the situation and also solve a murder mystery. Because of this isolated "the dead are rising" situation, she can speak to the victim, who can't remember what happened, which is pretty horrible. Dana is a single mom whose boss is her father, which creates not a little tension. She also protects a few family secrets (I don't want to give anything away), which creates more tension. I very much enjoyed this aspect of realistic personal relationships in the plot.

But this is not just a crime/mystery/family book. It is also chock full of horrific and creepy images. This ghoulish gallery gets established from the very first scene, where we see a local reporter doing a fluff piece on people with strange jobs. As she is interviewing and recording a junior mortician at work in the crematorium, the unthinkable and unexpected happens:
In time, we also get to see a mysterious, ethereal form haunt the woods in search of a baby:
And not least of all, we get to see that not all of the "revivers" are coherent or in control of themselves, especially not this older woman who is dealing with some major dental issues:
It might go without saying, but this book is for more mature readers who can deal with blood, guts, swearing, and adult themes.

The two driving forces behind this book are writer Tim Seeley and artist Mike Norton (I love the name of his website). In terms of comics, Seeley is probably best known as the co-creator of Hack/Slash, but he has done a bunch of work with various companies, including a long run on G.I. Joe. He loves horror stories and is excellent at setting tones and spinning compelling tales with interesting characters. Norton is a comics veteran probably best known for his Eisner Award-winning webcomic Battlepug, but he also has drawn a great many comics for numerous publishers. He is a masterful visual storyteller. Both creators talk about their work on Revival in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been glowing. CBR's Doug Zawisza called the series "an unexpected windfall that evokes an uncomfortable feeling, piques interest and taunts curiosity. It's a good read with great art and a weird, wild diversion from anything else on the stands this week." Alex Lupp gushed, "if you are a fan of character dramas with a tinge of horror and supernatural then this comic-book is a must read!" Drew Bradley summed this book up as "an unsurprisingly great debut to what will hopefully be a long series."

You're Among Friends was published by Image Comics. Here is a preview from Comic Book Resources.

The series is on-going and is currently on issue #18. There are also two additional trade paperback collections available now.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Superior Foes of Spider-Man: Getting the Band Back Together


This book collects the first six issues of what gets called a "sleeper hit" of the year. On face value, it is a book about supervillains, mostly minor foes of Spider-Man who have banded together to take on their common enemy. These are not A-list characters, and probably they are most known for how easily they were taken down in the first volume of The Superior Spider-Man. However, their status as C-list characters that are relatively unknown opens them up for more exploration and interesting situations, as the major corporation that controls these super-powered characters does not fear their likenesses being changed or altered. I mean, what is to be feared, that their Q-scores will go up?

There is a cynical part of me that gets bummed out that more exciting things are not being done with major characters, but at the same time if these companies are still willing to take chances to give expert creators leeway to make interesting and entertaining books, then does that make up for it? I leave that question to the ether and my audience really, so make of it what you will or respond what you think in the comments.

In the meantime, let me tell you about this book, the creation of two experienced creators, best-selling writer Nick Spencer and Eisner Award winning artist Steve Lieber. Spencer has told some excellent stories with his creator owned series Morning Glories, Marvel Comics' Secret Avengers, and DC Comics' Jimmy Olsen. Lieber is known for his expressive illustrations and storytelling in the comics series Whiteout, Detective Comics, and Civil War: Frontline as well as co-authoring The Complete Idiot's Guide to Creating a Graphic Novel. Spencer speaks about his work on the Superior Foes series in this interview, and Lieber speaks more extensively about his career in this interview.

So, what happens when two expert creators are given free reign to weave tales of minor supervillains without pulling any punches? They produce a bunch of compelling heist comics about a band of real jerks. There is Boomerang, an ex-professional baseball player banned for gambling; Speed Demon, a super-fast thief who used to be known as the Whizzer; Shocker, the also unfortunately named villain armed with electro-shock gauntlets; Overdrive, the getaway driver who can transform and super-charge any vehicle, and the Beetle, a woman with a technological suit of armor at her disposal. Together, they bicker and scheme, comprising the new Sinister Six. Even though there are five of them.
Silly villain, don't you know comic books aren't worth any money?
Notably, I think this is a comic book series that is simultaneously attractive to new fans who may not be aware of any of the characters' backstories and still fulfilling to long-time Marvel Comics readers. Spencer and Lieber do not sugarcoat the fact that these people are not nice and would willingly sell each other out in an instant in order to save their own skin or make a big score. But there is just enough learned about each character to make them somewhat relatable, if not sympathetic. Spencer and Lieber also depict some interesting social and power dynamics with a sense humor that is quite exceptional. The manner how the writing and art balance wit and suspense is the most striking feature of this volume, and I think if Oscar Wilde had written Criminal or Incognito, I bet it would resemble The Superior Foes of Spider-Man.
Some other things I liked: They are not always in costume, and they call each other by their first names.


Other reviewers have much good to say about this book. Jason at the Heroesonline blog called it "the best book you haven’t been reading." Jesse Schedeen commented positively that "the series is more grounded and focused on more flawed characters with less flashy powers. It's more a crime drama with costumed characters than a real supervillain book." He also had a great way of describing the series as "all about what the Six are up to when they're not being punched in the face by Spider-Man."

This book was published by Marvel Comics. There is a preview of the first few pages available here from Comic Book Resources.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Hidden


Hidden is a book about family and also about the Holocaust. It might be simplistically called Maus for middle schoolers, but that facile description detracts from this book's unique and powerful approach to depicting one girl's experiences and the effects of these events on her adulthood and role as a mother and grandmother.

The main narrative happens in France, and the main character is Dounia. We see the treatment of Jews through her young, naive eyes. Her parents try to shield her from the oppression and mistreatment, explaining that the Star of David she is obligated to wear is actually a symbol of her new job as sheriff. Little by little she sees through that facade to the injustices being done to her, her family, and her friends.
Eventually, she is separated from her family and has to pretend to be another couple's child. For her safety she is sent to life in the country, and she fears she will never see her parents again.
This tale is framed with sequences of Dounia as an old woman. She tells her story to her granddaughter Elsa, and it turns out that this is the first time she has said anything about her childhood to anyone in her family, including her own children. This revelation opens up some old wounds, and casts more light on the pain, suffering, and effects of this historical atrocity.

I found this book powerful and deceptively complex, an informative and evocative tale in the form of a child's account. It contains a combination of extremes that balance each other well, tempering its horrors with art that recalls Schulz's Peanuts with its aura of childhood, wisdom, and innocence. The story was direct, compelling, heartbreaking, redemptive, and full of suspense and drama. I really enjoyed reading it and was moved much more than I thought I would be.

This book is the product of a trio of French creators, writer Loic Davillier and artists Marc Lizano and Greg Salsedo (all their websites are in French).

Hidden does an excellent job explaining the realities of the Holocaust to a middle grades audience (any audience really), and it has received a number of very positive reviews. Terry Hong remarked that this book effectively tells a story that is horrible and relatable, stating that "the French creative team proves spectacularly adept in balancing the nightmare with moments of innocent humor (“pink shoes”), unexpected laughter (“‘Does Grandpa know you were in love with another boy?’”), and joyful discovery (“‘I did it! I did it!’”)." Publishers Weekly also stated that the book "balances the cruelty of the persecution she experiences with the miraculous generosity of her neighbors." There are a number of other reviews at Library Thing, and one called this book "Highly Recommended."

Hidden was published by First Second. They provide a preview and much more here.

Thank you, Gina, for the review copy!


Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Glorkian Warrior Delivers a Pizza


I have to admit I am of a few minds with James Kochalka. I find his artwork fun and appealing, and there are projects of his I truly love, such as the first two Johnny Boo books, Monkey Vs. Robot, and especially his Superf*ckers (NSFW) series. Others, like Pinky and Stinky, I am lukewarm about, and some, like the later Johnny Boo books, have really disappointed me because I find them pretty shallow, ridiculous, and even mean-spirited at times. Still, I know the guy is prolific and maybe I am being too touchy about what he thinks people want to read. He was the cartoonist laureate of Vermont, so what do I know? I just want to get all that out there before I tell you what I thought of this new volume of his work.

The Glorkian Warrior Delivers a Pizza is about a space superhero-type who receives a fateful phone call one day.
 
As you can see, he takes some things way too seriously, but at the same time this mission gets off to a shaky start when he decides to use his leftovers instead of a fresh pizza.
I am perhaps as ambivalent about this book as I am about Kochalka's work in general. There are some neat things here: a backpack that talks and shoots lasers, a kid in a giant power suit, and an adorable Space Invaders-type baby born from an egg. Regardless, even though I have been known to appreciate some mindless humor and cartoon violence this book mostly left me cold. I just cannot bring myself to root for the title character. He is incredibly stupid, frequently blows things up without any serious repercussions, and resorts to punching himself in the face repeatedly. There is nothing attractive about him, and perhaps I am not the target audience, but I find little redeeming quality in him and his oblivious and sometimes mean, dismissive ways. Maybe he's meant to be some sort of parody, but he just comes off like a dope and a bully. And in the end all his antics prove is that it is better to be lucky than capable.

This book's creator James Kochalka has won an Eisner Award, multiple Ignatz Awards, as well as a Harvey Award, and as I already noted he is the first person ever named Cartoonist Laureate for a US state (Vermont). He used to create a daily, online, diary comic American Elf and apparently still has updates there once in a while. He also has published a wide array of comics for all age groups, mostly through Top Shelf Productions. Kochalka speaks about his work on this book, its upcoming sequel, and his favorite kind of pizza in this interview.

Perhaps the best thing about this book is the color scheme. The artwork is simple and expressive, but I find the layouts and pacing a little too by-the-numbers. This is not Kochalka's strongest book, and although there are some silly bits that are entertaining, overall this book just is not my cup of tea.

Reviews I have read of this book range across the spectrum. Kirkus Reviews wrote glowingly, "Kochalka’s worlds are always winsome, strange and silly; this is certainly one of his stronger offerings." Publishers Weekly opined that the plot might be pointless "but fans of Kochalka’s brand of absurdity (or who want to watch the Glorkian Warrior punch himself in the face a lot) will still have reason to tune in." Sharon the Librarian offered her opinion that this book "is not my kind of humor," explaining that "the main character, the warrior, is the most unintelligent character that I have ever seen. Honestly, I know that it is part of the humor, and a relatively common tool, but this goes a bit to the extreme."

The Glorkian Warrior Delivers a Pizza was published by First Second. They provide a preview and much more here.

Thank you, Gina, for the review copy!

PS, Apparently there is a Glorkian Warrior video game in the works. Check it out if you are interested.
Oh, Gonk...

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Fantastic Life


(Warning: Today's blog contains adult language and is more Rated R than usual, but we are all adults here, right?).

A book about art, sex, postmodern theory, drinking, donuts, zombies, and art school, you say? Sign me up, I say!

Fantastic Life is a book that treads some familiar ground for me. In part it's  a depiction of art school as depicted in other works, like Dan Clowes's Art School Confidential, but it's also an examination of art, theory, and reality. Set in 1982 in Winnepeg, this book follows the travails of Adam, an art student looking to express himself, get laid, and figure out his life (not necessarily in that order). Sometimes he gets in over his head when it comes to hanging around intellectuals, and he is not always the smoothest individual.
Adam is pretty focused when he is drunk, but does not always grasp the situation. Or language.
His major issue for the most part is that he is confusing dream and reality. Sometimes he is rough and uneducated. Sometimes he knows what he is talking about. Sometimes he is in command of his artistic abilities. Other times he is totally making everything up as he goes along. Sometimes he is enjoying a donut at a Tim Horton's, and sometimes he is being tormented by flesh-eating zombies.
Like I said earlier, much of the territory in this book seems familiar, but what sets it apart for me is its execution. Set in the 1980s, it contains many cultural and musical references of the day, which along with the dialogue and situations indicate that this book is thinly veiled autobiography to some degree. I did not go to art school, but this book strongly conveys the feelings of being a young person in college and the anxieties that attend that period for many. Also, the artwork is excellently visceral, and not just in the zombie parts. The storytelling is clear and strong but there is also a painterly quality that drew me into this book as if it were another world. Taking everything in, I felt like I was in the smoky, dank bar drinking with friends, that I was in that house party winding through a labyrinth of stairs and rooms, and that I was engulfed by adolescent lust for naked models and other bodies.

The person behind all this artistry and craft is Kevin Mutch, a graphic novelist, digital artist, and painter. He received a Xeric Award in 2010 and is known for his webcomic The Moon Prince. He also has a career in design and was a long time art director the Canadian musicians The Crash Test Dummies (known by old folks like me for their hit Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm, but I seriously love their first two albums). Mutch speaks about his influences and career here.

An excerpt from this book was featured in the 2011 Best American Comics anthology, and in general the book has received much praise. The reviewer at comicsbubble praised "its multi-layered content, fresh and bold line illustrations and well thought out characters." The Comic Journal's Sean T. Collins commented positively on the "way Mutch’s attention to detail, from the tits on down, solidifies and strengthens this book," and summed up, "It’s horny, heavy shit." He meant that as a compliment, I believe.

Fantastic Life was published by Blurred Books. About half of the book is available here for reading from the author.
Sounds like the perfect book for me. Target audience acquired.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Bad Houses


Bad Houses is a book about many things: young love, familial obligations, growing up, dealing with the past, and the connections between people's possessions and memories. It follows two young adults, Lewis, who works for his mother who organizes estate sales, and Anne, who lives with her mother who is a hoarder. They are both complex people in a narrative that powerfully and elegantly defines people's situations and contexts.
These two young people are trying to figure out how to live their lives and deal with the expectations of their respective single moms. Anne's situation is further complicated when her mother starts dating and wants her boyfriend to move in with them. So much of this book is involved with interpersonal relationships, and the powerful impacts that folks have on one another propels much of the plot. Certainly, events, some of them quite dramatic, occur, but what is more powerful and evocative here are the delicate and complicated interplay of people's various emotional reactions. The characters are well detailed both in terms of their back stories and their visual depictions. Take for instance this simple yet devastating scene at Anne's house.
I should also add that in addition to the characters and plot that the setting and context also play large roles, almost as if they were characters in the story. The town of Failin, Oregon where this tale is set is in decline, the site of an abandoned brewery and rampant unemployment. The past weighs heavily, and long forgotten events still have a profound and unexpected impact on the present. So much is interwoven into this beautiful and compelling narrative tapestry. 

The concept of interplay also applies to how this book is composed. It is one of those excellent kind of comics where the words and pictures coalesce so well and complement each other in telling this story. The background details, graffiti, and local signs are just as essential to the plot as the deft dialogue and intricate narrative. Additionally, this book oozes charm, personality, and humanity in the most beautiful ways. It is absolutely winning in execution.

This book's creators are both well accomplished for their solo works but here collaborate extremely well. Writer Sara Ryan is a full time librarian and an award winning author of young adult novels, including The Rules for Hearts and Empress of the World. She has also written a number of comics for various anthologies, including Comic Book Tattoo and Hellboy: Weird Tales. Artist Carla Speed McNeil is a Lulu, Ignatz, and Eisner Award winning cartoonist. She has been publishing her Finder comics series since 1996 and began the webcomic version in 2005. She has also illustrated a few other series, such as a run on Queen & Country, and she is editor-in-chief of Saucy Goose Press. Both creators speak about their inspirations and work on this book in this interview.

Bad Houses has received and well deserves high praise. Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review, calling it "a drama with true depth." Time's Douglas Wolk put it on his Top 10 Best Comics and Graphic Novels list for 2013. Reading Rants described it as "a well-told and astutely drawn story of fate and forgiveness." Hillary Brown opined that it is "more than just a tale of young love and the way life opens up when you find someone who clicks. The book operates in a kind of clockwork universe, a.k.a. a small town, where everyone is connected in some fashion." Its subject matter might not be typical graphic novel fare, but it is a unique and exquisite book.

Bad Houses was published by Dark Horse, and they provide a preview and more here.

Thanks to Sara Ryan for sharing a PDF of this book with me!